Nepal Purbadhar

शुक्रबार, माघ १३, २०७९
Friday, January 27, 2023

शुक्रबार, माघ १३, २०७९
Friday, January 27, 2023

‘Political Willpower and Ethics a must for Infrastructure Development’

Dr. Hem Nath Ghimire came to the spotlight only after news spread across the country about his involvement in one of the key components of the newly built Padma Bridge of Bangladesh that set four world records in different terms. However, his expertise is well-known in the infrastructure engineering fraternity. He has long experience working in the tunnel, railway, and hydropower sectors, among other critical infrastructures. Taking to Bhim Gautam, Jeevan Basnet, and Sachit Banjara of Nepal Infrastructure.com, he delved into various aspects of vital infrastructure development ranging from his experience in Padma Bridge to challenges and opportunities in the development sector. 

How did you get involved in the construction of the mega project- the Padma Bridge in Bangladesh?

I get into the construction sector after completing higher education in geotechnical engineering around 2003. Then I was assigned to the Muglin-Narayanghat road reconstruction project for about four months in 2004 before I joined the access road project as the lead in the Melamchi water supply tunnel for about a year. I went to East Timor on a road project at the end of 2006. I joined there and worked on small projects at first because they didn’t have a big project. I also went to Afghanistan twice in 2007 and 2008 for about five months. I went to Malaysia to work for two years at a Japanese company. After that, I returned to Nepal in 2011 and started working as the General Manager of the Lamjung Electricity Development Company. It was my first experience for me in the hydropower sector. I went to Bangladesh in 2012 accepting an offer by SMEC to work on a railway construction project for three years.

My assignment in the railway project was heading to an end, and SMEC again sent me to look at the geotechnical aspects of the Padma bridge because they needed a technician on that component. I was then given the opportunity to work on such vast projects that broke four world records. After that, for the first few years, half of my time was dedicated to the railway project and the remaining half to the Padma bridge project. Since the middle of 2016, after the complete completion of the railway project, I undertook all the geotechnical research work at Padma Bridge and that research was completed in February 2018. I am proud to be part of the mega bridge project that successfully completed a few months back. I am currently working on other projects in Bangladesh along with SMEC.

According to the policy of Bangladesh, the Padma Bridge project is being used for multiple purposes. For example, using this bridge to go to the northeastern states of India will make travel easier on the one hand, and on the other hand, if there is a direct connection with Dhaka, the nine states of Bangladesh will increase business, and revenue will also increase.

Could you tell us your role in the process of constructing the Padma Bridge?

Bangladesh is close to the Bay of Bengal. All of Nepal’s rivers, both large and small, flow into the Bay of Bengal. Bangladesh has no land higher than two to four meters above sea level, and during the rainy season, floods cause a lot of damage, like most of the road and air transportation in Nepal. Water transport has a vital position in Bangladesh. However, accidents in water vessels in common in Bangladesh claiming hundreds of lives every year- especially during rainy seasons.

The Padma River is also called the Ganga River in India, which flows from India to Bangladesh. The Brahmaputra River, flowing from Assam in India, also joins the Padma River. After the river enters Bangladesh, it becomes the Jamuna River. These two rivers join to form the larger Padmavati. The Padma River flows southeast of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, into the Bay of Bengal.

One has to cross the Padma River to reach the capital, Dhaka, from nine districts in southwest Bangladesh. It was always a problem to cross the Padma River during the rainy season. Because there was no bridge, there was always a risk of accidents. To solve this problem in the long term, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, launched a plan to build a bridge on the Padmavati River. During his father’s time, the Jamuna Bridge was built on the Jamuna River with the help of the Japanese government.

According to the policy of Bangladesh, the Padma Bridge project is being used for multiple purposes. For example, using this bridge to go to the northeastern states of India will make travel easier on the one hand, and on the other hand, if there is a direct connection with Dhaka, the nine states of Bangladesh will increase business, and revenue will also increase.

Hasina devised and implemented a plan to build a bridge across the Padmavati river in order to reduce the distance between Dhaka and the capital due to the lack of a bridge across the Padmavati. There were plans to provide facilities to the citizens of nine districts in western Bangladesh. The Padma Hasina government ordered a study for constructing a bridge over the Padma River with the goal of connecting its network to the Asian Highway.

Initially, the Japanese government provided some assistance in the study of the bridge. After that, the Bangladesh government studied the feasibility of the Padma Bridge on its own initiative. The detailed design was done with the help of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and various other organizations.

After the completion of the study, when the construction was about to start, various organizations withdrew their hands from the Padma Bridge, citing various reasons. After the financial institutions that had previously committed to investing, withdrew from the project, prompting the Bangladesh government to arrange funds on its own. The Padma Bridge is an important project for the country, and the Bangladesh government has announced that it will build the bridge using its own financial resources. The construction of the bridge started at the end of 2014.

What was your role in building the bridge?

Since I have been living and working in Bangladesh for a long time, I was enjoying the working environment and language there. As the Bengali language and our Nepali language are similar to some extent, it was easy to work there for me. I found the attitude of the government and the people of Bangladesh towards the Nepali people very positive.

By all accounts, the construction of Padma Bridge was challenging. Many people use to believe that the Padma Bridge project cannot be built because the work of preparing the structure is political in nature.  However, the Bangladesh government, consultants, contracting companies, and all those who were, directly and indirectly, involved in this project, gave high priority to the project and worked diligently, surprising the world.

Bangladeshis still remember Nepal’s support for Bangladesh’s independent movement in 1971. Nepali people participated in their freedom fight, and Bangladesh still calls and honors them. That’s why the working environment was very easy for me. As I have already worked on many other international projects, I can easily mingle with people from different countries.

Another thing is the working environment. Staffers were very helpful. The roles to be played by the junior engineers of the construction supervisor consultant, local residents, and people from the construction company who assisted us were very professional. I was also clear about my duties and responsibilities and I worked with relevant technicians. Hence, I did not have to face any problems in the process of construction.

By all accounts, the construction of Padma Bridge was challenging. Many people use to believe that the Padma Bridge project cannot be built because the work of preparing the structure is political in nature.  However, the Bangladesh government, consultants, contracting companies, and all those who were, directly and indirectly, involved in this project, gave high priority to the project and worked diligently, surprising the world.

The Prime Minister of Bangladesh took it as a project to boost the country’s economy.  I believe that it is possible to complete such big projects because all parties are dedicated. On behalf of the government there, the Bangladesh Bridge Authority also provided great support and assistance throughout the construction period.

There were no major problems of any kind with paying bills to the contractor or obtaining clearance from the government of any kind throughout the construction period. Even if challenges arose during the project’s execution, they were overcome by bringing in international experts. When this was done, the work progressed rapidly. As soon as a problem appeared somewhere, technical matters were also discussed with the consultants. A panel of experts was international-level experts. Management-support consultants were also appointed.

As soon as there was a small problem with the project, all parties solved it together. I found that the Bangladesh government and government officials all worked with the understanding that the construction of the Padma bridge project is for the prosperity of Bangladesh, for the improvement of the people’s living standards, and for the improvement of the country’s economy. In the same way, political commitment and support also made the project and its construction possible. If there was no political commitment, it would not have been possible to complete a project of this intensity.

How important is the Padma Bridge for the economic development of Bangladesh?

Economically, it is projected to increase the gross domestic product (GDP) of Bangladesh by 0.84 percent. On the other hand, the construction of the bridge has facilitated transportation in the western region of Bangladesh. Since the bridge was used for commuting, travel time has been significantly saved and accidents on waterways are going to decrease. Similarly, fuel consumption is also declining due to shorter travel distances made by the bridge.

After the construction of the Padma Bridge, the capacity of Bangladeshi engineers has developed. They can now complete large infrastructure projects with minimal effort. This is a great achievement for Bangladesh. During the construction period of the bridge, the local people got many employment opportunities.

Strategically, the South Asian Highway will also connect the rail link through that bridge. According to the policy of Bangladesh, this bridge project will be used for multiple purposes. For example, using the Padma bridge to go to the northeastern states of India makes travel easier on the one hand, and on the other hand, Bangladesh will also collect more revenue.

How many technical personnel were directly involved in the construction of the Padma Bridge?

More than 300 freshly graduated engineers were given direct employment opportunities in the Padma Bridge project. With the completion of the bridge project, they have now become skilled enough to lead the work on medium-sized bridge projects. Apart from these engineers, other technicians were also involved in the construction of the project. They were low-level technicians, but now they have become very experienced and skilled because of the project. Even higher-level technicians were involved in the Padma Bridge project. By connecting with government agencies and consulting companies in Bangladesh, the capacity was developed so that they could work on big projects in the future.

Bangladesh surprised the world by building the Padma Bridge. What is the lesson that Nepal should learn from Bangladesh?

I was the only Nepali technician involved in the construction of the Padma Bridge project. Having already worked on some infrastructure projects in Nepal, I went to Bangladesh. Even though I have been living and working in Bangladesh for a long time, I used to hear from my friends about the condition of Nepal’s infrastructure development. The development of the infrastructure sector in Nepal is not going according to plan.

In my experience, if the Prime Minister’s Office of Bangladesh had not directly and regularly inspected the Padma Bridge project, it would probably not have been completed even now. The Padma bridge project was overseen directly by the Prime Minister’s Office. The relevant departmental minister used to go to the project site for inspection from time to time. They used to go for inspection with the aim of completing the project sooner rather than neglecting it. When they went for the inspection, they discovered the issues with the project. If there was any problem, they would try to solve it immediately.

 Those at the policy level, in my opinion, are the most important stakeholders in completing the country’s major infrastructure projects on time and on budget. If the people sitting at the political level can be positive and play a role in completing the infrastructure projects for the prosperity of the country, any big projects can be completed on time.

Likewise, if the responsible person at the policy level gives direction and puts pressure on those who are involved at the technical, financial, and executive levels to work sincerely, the project can be successfully built. When the responsibility could not flow morally from the upper level, the lower level also did not follow the policy rules. And it will have an impact on project construction. I have seen that it is necessary for officials sitting at the political level in Nepal to understand this.

This has happened on some projects in Nepal as well. However, as far as I understand and based on my experience, it seems that there is a lack of ethics among the high officials who sit at the level of policy-making in Nepal. If those who are sitting at the policy level only improve moral behavior, Nepal can also make big projects by investing like Bangladesh. If moral behavior had been good, the Melamchi water supply, bridge, road, and electricity transmission line would not have taken as long to build.

Even though I have worked on such a big project, I am a person who first acquired knowledge in Nepal. Based on the skills I learned here, I got the opportunity to work at the international level. Like me, many technicians have gone to the international level and worked on major infrastructure projects. Even within the country, technical manpower is currently working on various infrastructure projects. It is my understanding that due to the decline in moral conduct, several tasks have not been completed in the infrastructure sector.

Padma Bridge was completed by a Chinese construction company. However, on the contrary, Chinese construction companies are failing in Nepal. What can be the reasons behind that paradox?

If you study the company that takes the contract, you will know at the beginning how much work they can do. Accordingly, they had to be paid, and whatever obstacles had to be removed from the side of the government also had to be removed. Such things should be looked into before proceeding with project construction. And then only the contractor works to its full capacity.

When selecting a construction company, carefully study its past track record on delivering projects. Can the company provide the skilled manpower required for the project or not? Companies should be awarded contracts only after understanding the financial and technical aspects, including all these other things.

After completing the work, it should be regularly controlled and regulated. This work should be done first by the government agency and then by the construction supervision consultant. The main thing is that, after taking the contract for the construction of the project, the company has the responsibility to complete the work.

In Nepal, we have seen chronic problems in infrastructure project delivery. How can we overcome this?

 The main reason why large infrastructure projects are delayed and not implemented is a lack of commitment at the leadership level. Apart from that, it is necessary for the project manager appointed by the government to have acquired knowledge on the related subject. Without such requirements, the project cannot be completed within the time and budget constraints.

As soon as the project leader changes, another person goes to that place. And the new project chief needs additional time to understand the project’s dynamics.  Due to this, the new person cannot work instantly and the project got delayed.

The project manager should be allowed to work freely. Moral pressure should be applied to those who work for the government. Also, one should be allowed to work without being transferred until the project is completed.

Apart from that, another important thing related to project management is the management of problems from local residents at the local units. After the completion of the project, there should be benefits for the local residents and support for income generation. The project should bring local people on board by sincerely listening to their concerns and demands.

The main reason why large infrastructure projects are delayed and not implemented is a lack of commitment at the leadership level. Apart from that, it is necessary for the project manager appointed by the government to have acquired knowledge on the related subject.

It is said that capital and manpower management are always problems in large infrastructure projects. How can it be solved?

Before the construction of any project starts, detailed mapping or design should be done while looking at the financial aspects of the project. It should be clear where and how to manage it. For that, it should be clear how much local, government, and international manpower will be used for that purpose.

After that is resolved, it is learned that there was a financial problem or scarcity of required technicians during the project’s construction. With my international experience in this regard. I’m always surprised as to how did such a problem arise. That should never happen. The project manager has a responsibility to manage such issues carefully.

How do infrastructure projects play a role in boosting the country’s economy?

For an underdeveloped or developing country like ours, infrastructure development is everything. Development cannot happen without transportation, subsequent communication, and various modes of transportation. For example, if some product is produced in a remote place, it cannot be brought to the market and consumers without transport infrastructure.

We see a lack of commitment among those who are leading the government. Nepal can deliver an economic boost if those at the helm show their willpower.

On the other hand, due to the lack of infrastructure, our Manang and Mustang apples are rotting and wasting. Infrastructure development could not move ahead for the last 30 years ago. It is a significantly long time, and development should have happened by now. It is time to question why good roads could not be constructed in Manang and Mustang, Jumla, and Humla. Why couldn’t a good school, a good college, and a good hospital be built in Jumla? 30 years is not a short period of time. We see a lack of commitment among those who are leading the government. Nepal can deliver an economic boost if those at the helm show their willpower.

What are the infrastructure projects that Nepal should build? How should the government prioritize and implement those projects?

There should be the first priority for transport infrastructure both for transport and air transport. After that, it is the tourism sector that provides us with a lot of income from foreign visitors. As soon as transportation infrastructures are developed, the tourism sector will also develop automatically. The facilities required for tourism or the skilled manpower required for this sector should be produced.

Then what is the condition of our local units in different places? Infrastructure should be built with the intention of identifying it and bringing it to the national or international market. For example, why couldn’t the herbs found in Manang, Mustang, and Lamjung, and the sheep and other cattle found in Jumla go to the international market? The provincial level had to provide support to promote it and support grain production in places where grain is produced. Also, our country should identify and promote the things that have the potential to earn cash. People from all over the world will come to play golf in Rara Lake a good golf course built and ice collected from around Mt. Everest can be branded as an exportable product.

How is the experience level of Nepal in constructing big bridges?

While working in Bangladesh, there were no locals who had worked on such a large-scale project. International-level experts were also few. They shared knowledge they had gained with other junior engineers. It helped with technology transfer.

In my case, as an expert, after going to the construction site, you should be dedicated to working and learning. At some point, you should teach the juniors by being strict. It transfers the technical know-how of the experts to the local level.

Even the learner must learn with a determination that this is for my country. In most of the big projects, technology is being transferred. However, many seem to ignore it. Even the local engineers are not interested in learning, and the international-level engineers are also not trying to teach because they think they are geniuses. Even in government agencies, those who are supposed to study do not seem to pay much attention.

While working in Bangladesh, there were no locals who had worked on such a large-scale project. International-level experts were also few. After going there, they had the desire to learn and the feeling that they would teach the knowledge they had gained to other junior engineers. It helped with “technology transfer.”

Land acquisition and social and environmental issues are key obstacles in infrastructure project development in Nepal. How is Bangladesh tackling these issues?

 Social and environmental aspects are studied well before the projects are implemented. All non-technical aspects remain at this stage. It has to be studied in detail beforehand.

For that, the necessary documents are given to the special consultants and approved by the government agency. After approving the document, the relevant government agencies should also approve it. There should be no dispute or difficulty in that matter. Any dispute should be resolved by the government side, which has passed the study report.

The government, for example, should set the price for land to be acquired. In Bangladesh, there has been a set of criteria that offers two or three times more than the price set by the government and the local market prices of land.

No one can interfere with the compensation once it has been taken or accepted. There has to be a clear policy to deal with this issue. Even in developed countries, everything is studied in advance; after the study, it is only clear what to do. There will be no problem in the big project if such issues are clarified before the project is implemented.

What should be done to make infrastructure development a common agenda as big projects are always opposed by the public in Nepal?

In the end, many topics are related to politics. All the things that we have seen—the technicians, the local residents—are all involved in blind politics. People from everywhere are involved in politics.

If I take a handful of soil in my hand and remember my father and mother, if I do it thinking that it is true, then probably no one will make a mistake. However, what is seen and experienced in Nepal is not what is expected. Even the technicians have gone astray without looking at the work directly.

This situation would never have happened if no one had drifted away and worked for the country and the soil. We also have technicians and other human resources for project development. Everything is here. We have a golden land given to us by nature. The difference is that, if we work ethically and honestly, we will not have any difficulty or trouble anywhere. Nowhere else can you find such tolerant, hardworking, and cheerful citizens as the Nepali people.

What is happening in our country is that local stakeholders are not informed properly. They are unaware of the benefits that the project can bring to the local level. To clear the confusion and misunderstanding, the project should give high priority to organizing stakeholder consultation at various levels.

How can big projects secure support from local people?

The first issue is to discuss with an expert whether the proposal is correct in all aspects. It should be reminded locally after deciding to bring the project. The government there should reach out to the local people there and educate the people about the benefits and significance of the planned projects. There must be adequate consultations with stakeholders to bring them on board for securing their buy-in and social licensing.

What is happening in our country is that local stakeholders are not informed properly. They are unaware of the benefits that the project can bring to the local level. To clear the confusion and misunderstanding, the project should give high priority to organizing stakeholder consultation at various levels.

Similarly, there should be both public and technical hearings on big projects. In the technical hearing, information should be given to the general public in a way that they understand the technical aspects easily.

How important are the tunnel infrastructures for Nepal?

Most of the hydroelectric tunnels that are being built now are just tunnels. A hydroelectric tunnel is not that much more sensitive than traffic. Looking at the geography of Nepal, we have a lot of difficulties making tunnels. Its initial cost is also very high. We have to calculate all that.

A two-kilometer tunnel can be dug easily in some places, while a 10-kilometer road may be required in others.   Because as much as it costs to dig that two-kilometer tunnel, the corresponding revenue may not be raised. It should be done based on the situation.

For example, if the cost of constructing the Nagadhunga tunnel can be easily raised, it should not be delayed. In many places, we cannot make tunnels because there are many high mountains in Nepal and seismic sensitivity.

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